Happiness in a Bowl: Comfort Food from Around the World
Nothing brings people together as food does, and when it’s comfort food, the accompanying rush of memories are almost as heady as the flavor of melt-in-your-mouth goodness. The longing for comfort foods can be that much stronger when you’ve moved half way across the world. When it’s a dish that’s been passed down through generations of immigrants, you realize that food has more staying power than most cultural traditions. Where there is an immigrant population of significant size, it’s only a matter of time before there’s a grocery store, and soon after restaurants, fulfilling those cravings, serving memories on a platter.
In speaking with first, second, or third generation immigrants from geographically far-flung Afghanistan, Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Russia, and China, soup, in all its glorious forms, often made it as a number one comfort food. It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, especially given the time of year!
Chicagoan Rachid Belbachir, who is Algerian by birth, cannot forget the harira made by his mother and sister, despite nearing thirty years in the United States. A rich, hearty, delicious soup made of meat, vermicelli, root vegetables, chick peas, herbs like parsley and cilantro, and spices such as coriander, cumin, turmeric, and red chili powder, it is to the Algerian soul what chicken soup is to the American. It’s exquisite, whether made in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker, and a winter treat.
“My mom makes it when we have guests or special occasions,” reminisces Belbachir, “and it’s often made in Ramadan, more than any other time. It brings back memories of weddings and of Ramadan, where we come together to eat as a family.” Recipes for it vary, says Belbachir, and while his wife, born in Mexico and raised in the US, has mastered many other Algerian dishes, “after 25 years of marriage, she’s almost getting the harira right,” he says. “You have to have a hand for it.” The ingredients are found easily and Belbachir and wife Norma live close enough to Devon Avenue in Chicago (known for its cultural diversity) to make Fresh Market their shopping destination.
Ibrahim Kutum, a resident of neighboring Carol Stream, Illinois, has memories of fufu, which looks like mashed potatoes and is served hot with a soup of lamb meat and spices. Great for dinner or lunch, it’s an everyday food back in Sudan. Made of nutritious sorghum, this gluten-free cereal grain flour is mixed with water and gently brought to a boil, stirring all the while until it is solid. “You prepare the fufu first and then serve it with the soup,” says Kutum. Sourghum flour hasn’t been the easiest for him to find in Chicago and, though he tries to make it with other kinds of flour, it just doesn’t come out right, says Kutum. “My mother and sister make it back home and I miss it because we grew up with it. The different types of soup it’s served with make it very delicious. You can change the soup on a daily basis, but the fufu remains the same.”
Sometimes, there isn’t even a soup. Kutum continues, “When we were little, my granddad used to make fufu himself. However, instead of soup, he served it with fresh goat milk and that was very good. You can also serve it with cow’s milk or sheep’s milk, but it has to be fresh.”
Abu Daoud Café is Chicago’s only Sudanese restaurant and in Ramadan they offer iftar (meal to end the fast), making it quite the culinary experience. It would be very surprising if they served fresh goat milk with fufu, though!
Kung Pik Liu was born and raised in Hong Kong before moving to the US at 19 for college. Now a resident of Corning in upstate New York, her comfort food is Chinese soup noodles, a street food. “It’s hard to find in the USA, especially as a halal version,” she says. “Our marketplaces in Hong Kong have a special section for food vendors. I grew up on it, always having it when I went with my parents to the market for groceries. It was a fun time.”
Since she is originally from Southern China, her version of Chinese soup comprises rice noodles, vegetables, and a protein, whether a fried egg, a few pieces of meat, or fish balls. “It’s very easy to make it in five to ten minutes if you have the ingredients,” says Liu. “You can buy ready-made fish balls in any Chinese store.”
While she does cook it when she has a craving, “my husband, Jontie, says it smells fishy.” Luckily for Liu, her daughter Aisha does ask for it, giving her reason enough to make it.
Rachid Belbachir’s co-worker, Hanane El Rhalib, a recent immigrant from neighboring Morocco, is raising her kids to love Moroccan couscous, her comfort food of choice. “I try to make it at least once a week. It’s tasty and healthy and now my son is asking me to make it for him. I consider it one of his comfort foods now!” she says.
El Rhalib’s recipe calls for couscous, onions, carrots, zucchini, parsnip, pieces of pumpkin or butternut squash, parsley, coriander, and tomato paste. “I consider it a comfort food because I feel better emotionally and it brings comforting thoughts of my home and childhood,” she says. “Back home we used to have couscous for lunch for our Friday traditional family gathering.” When it comes to dining out, Moroccan imports to Chicago vote for Shokran restaurant in Irving Park for its authentic taste.
Lasagna is another one of El Rhalib’s comfort foods as she says it “brings back a lot of memories from my trip to Italy. My elder sister used to make delicious lasagna and since her husband is Italian she learnt how to make it perfectly.” Though lasagna originates from Italy, it is often considered a traditional American comfort food, with layers of hearty meat, robust tomato sauce, and creamy cheese.
Azima Abdul-Azim, born in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and raised in “Little Kabul” (Fremont), California, now lives in Sauganash, Illinois. A busy mother, Abdul-Azim still makes time to make mantu dumplings, a popular Afghani comfort food. “Mantu is a delicacy made by few because of the amount of effort required to make it. Growing up, I only saw mantu served at very special dinner parties,” says Abdul-Azim. “But, once you sink your teeth into some, you will realize it’s well worth the effort.” A steamer that can be bought at Asian stores is required to make mantu. “It is a big pot with three tiers. The bottom tier holds water and the second and third tiers both have holes that hold the dumplings. Whenever I make this dish it’s for a dinner party, so I make a lot.” In the Chicagoland area, if you’ve got a craving but don’t fancy making it yourself, Kabul House in Skokie should be your go-to restaurant.
For Saleha Akhoon of Glendale Heights, Illinois, who moved to Chicago from Burma (Myanmar) at age seven, nothing beats tha-gu, a dessert made of brown rice, oats, grits, flax seeds, tapioca, boiled yams, and boiled sweet potatoes in coconut milk with brown sugar and a pinch of salt. “Such a comfort right at home. It’s like a health food and they used to make it in school in big pots. We’d eat it daily during recess, and just thinking of it makes me feel hungry,” she says. As for her recipe, “Be creative, no measurement necessary, just add ingredients as available.”
Her children love tha-gu as much as she does. “I used to be the happiest girl eating this in my childhood or even when I just smelled its aroma. I wanted to pass that memory on to my kids. Now, when I make it for them, they are so happy,” says Akhoon. Prep and cook time is approximately twenty-five minutes and she makes it twice a week. While tha-gu can be refrigerated for at least a week, it invariably never lasts that long. The colorful tapioca is available from any Asian mart.
Jontie Karden, Kung Pik Liu’s other half, is of Circassian descent. For him, nothing spells family, love, and warmth as his Eid favorite, haliva, does. A “Circassian ethnic food, it’s a deep fried dough with either a homemade Circassian cheese or potato filling. The cheese is seasoned with salt, pepper and some add parsley. The potato filling is flavored with onions, salt, pepper, and some add cayenne pepper and parsley. The dough is simple, but the use of milk instead of water makes it very soft and fluffy. Overall, it’s a simple food, but the taste is heavenly! Really, who doesn’t like deep fried dough?!” asks Liu.
“Haliva is my comfort food for multiple reasons,” says Karden, “primarily because of the way it tastes. The combination of the warm, flaky crust and the soft, salty cheese inside is intoxicating. I’m sure there’s a neuro-biochemical reason for this, probably the same reason deep-fried foods are a comfort food for many others. I have fond memories of my family sitting around the kitchen table making these delicious treats from scratch, rolling out the dough, flattening the circles with a pasta dough maker, adding the stuffing, folding and sealing it. Then it’s deep-fried. When you walk into someone’s house, the deep-fried dough smell puts you at ease.” When he visited family in New Jersey, each had a version. He recalls them making it a point to always visit the one relative who made the best version of haliva, passed three generations down from when his family first arrived to the US, Karden knows how food has its resilience. “It’s about memories of family. Making it together. Now my daughter, Pik, and I make it together from scratch.” Adiga Kitchen & Cafe in Wayne, New Jersey, is their recommendation for the best haliva, when they’d rather not make it themselves!